Restricting teen drivers also cuts down on teen drunk drivers

Teenagers in states with stiff limits on teen driving are less likely to drink and get behind the wheel or ride in a car with a driver who has been drinking, according to a new study.

The risk of a teen driver getting in a fatal accident multiplies when other teens are in the car. Research has shown that state laws restricting teen driving contribute to lower crash rates. A study recently reported by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine indicates that these restrictions can also cut down on the number of teens who drink and drive.

“It seems like these laws are really decreasing the opportunities for kids to engage in these risky behaviors, whether it’s themselves drinking and driving a vehicle or being a passenger of someone who has been drinking,” said the study’s lead author, Patricia A. Cavazos-Rehg, a research assistant professor in the Washington University School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry.

The study, published online last week, will appear in the September issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. It examined 16- and 17-year-old students from 1999 to 2009.

Car accidents are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More than 1,900 drivers ages 15 to 20 were killed nationwide in 2010, and 22 percent of young drivers involved in fatal accidents were drinking.

Graduated licensing laws, which restrict nighttime driving and the number of other passengers in the car, have been found to lower crash rates. The District and most states, including Maryland and Virginia, have such laws.

“The problem with young drivers . . . is that they’re inexperienced at driving and their judgment isn’t fully formed,” said John Undeland, who is on the board of the McLean-based Washington Regional Alcohol Program. “You throw alcohol into the mix, and risk becomes extreme danger.”

Because teens who are drinking are most likely doing so at night, Undeland said, it makes sense that limiting nighttime driving could avert drinking and driving.

“We’ve known that graduated drivers licensing reduces crashes,” said Nick Ellinger, a spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “This is the first [study] to show that it reduces drunk driving crashes specifically.”

The study also highlighted the effect of use-and-lose laws, which require license suspensions for teens who are caught drinking. The District, Maryland and Virginia can all suspend licenses for teens caught drinking and driving.

The threat of losing a license is “a powerful incentive” for a teenager who worked so hard to get it, Ellinger said.

Substantial research has been dedicated to teen driving, with studies finding that teens are particularly likely to crash in their first month of driving and are more likely to text from behind the wheel.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.

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